I am, generally speaking, not that excited about or interested in arguing or debating political issues in school. Over twenty-six years I have found that the kids have a lot more work to do in understanding themselves before they can get a clean grip on the issues of day, particularly large and massive external ones like geo-politics or private, intimate ones, like abortion rights.
But from time to time events in the world beyond the school and the Green Mountains find their way to the big room table. Events arrive with the kids in the days after, suddenly looming larger than the projects we’re working on or the problems we’re trying to solve. Sept. 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, Obama’s election, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Sandy Hook shooting, and so on. At other times, we’ve had to face, collectively, life-changing events of our classmates—the death of a parent, divorce, someone leaving the school. These occasional events, whether close or removed, effect us all.
With regard to 2016 presidential election, the issue for us teachers was how to seize the opportunity when the events of the world come out in the classroom. Most teachers will shy from wading into conflict. They don’t have time or support to get off the curriculum track and to respond to life and events as they happen. A good teacher, or a lucky teacher, will discard the day’s plans and wade into the conflict to extract the gold—this can be done so long as students are encouraged to be themselves, speak from their own lived experience, and not parrot slogans or propaganda. They have their own truths, and a teacher’s job is simple: help them find those truths, and help them be articulate and courageous in expressing them.
Due to the nature of our particular state, Vermont, and due to our particular community, and our peculiar school, we have, for better or worse, what could appear to be a homogeneity of political perspective. For the sake of diversity and learning, I often wish it were otherwise. But we are what we are. From where I stand, then, the most important thing to do is to go as deeply as possible to the place that transcends the politics and gets us closer to ourselves.
I had the opportunity to spend four hours thinking about it all this morning after November 8. I had to drive up to St. Albans, near the border of the U.S. and Canada to get an emergency travel documents for our class trip to Montreal, having discovered around the time the first returns from North Carolina were coming in that my passport had expired last May.
Mostly what I thought about was I might say when I got back to school. This is what teachers do. Even when we are living our lives away from school, we are thinking about what to do in it. We speculate about what the kids might bring in; or how to use what is happening in the world or our lives to best effect. What to say? How to respond? What direction to go? What to open up?
I knew they’d be thinking and feeling about the election. They’d be trying to make sense of it. I had my own thoughts and feelings to negotiate. I was also mindful of not wanting to press my own feelings too deeply into the classroom. It’s one thing for kids to absorb and live with their parents’ political views. It’s another to have a sometimes passionate and unhinged (for lack of a better word) teacher filling you up as well. My presumption was that their feelings would be variations of their parents’ feelings. And if the parents or adults around them were feeling particularly upset or or elated, they would be vessels for those feelings as much as, if not more than, their own.
So when I got to school in mid-morning, I didn’t say anything. I tried to stay busy. I asked the kids how meeting had gone. I sensed the kids were kind of in a state of shock, though they were busy with math and science and working at the big table in my classroom. I filled out my Fantasy Football sheets. I made a two drafts of a stained-glass plan. I organized a pile of papers and read a student’s story. I talked to Donna and Mia about the upcoming trip to Montreal. I asked Wren what she was doing.
“I’m reading this book and looking at the pictures,” she said. The book was a massive coffee table book called This American Century, and had nothing to do with anything she was currently learning about. “I’m feeling kind of panicked about the election. My parents are really upset and I’ve already cried three times this morning. But this book is a good distraction.”
“Are you upset about the election?” I asked.
“I’m more upset about my parents, because they are really upset,” she said.
There was a kind of subdued pall over the school. Griffin walked into the big room.
“Are you okay?” he asked, looking at me.
“Not really,” I said. It was thoughtful of him to notice, to ask. The kids here do that all the time.
But at lunch things appeared normal. A low intensity game of tackle football on the Doug Walker Field, the unprepared quarterback standing calmly while receivers tried to get open. A game of Battleship in the Math room. In the science room Eric and his classes had been building a model watershed. There was a kiddie pool on top of the science room tables filled with mud and moss and a small, turbid body of water. An aquarium pump was drawing muddy water out of the “lake,” which was then pumped up so it could dribble out of a foot-high peak of mud, where the waters began their meandering path back through little rivers and to the lake again.
After lunch Hannah presented her Freedom and Revolution project on Slavery. She began it by having us all crouch down in the fetal position under the big room table while she read a poem about slave ship captains throwing captured Africans’ corpses overboard to sharks to lighten the load. This was her attempt to make us feel something of what it was like to live through the Middle Passage, to be stowed away under decks in a terror of coldness and pain. Catherine and Rosemary remained under the table for the whole project, taking notes, believing that if they were really going to experience history, they were going to have to do it for two hours, not three minutes.
Hannah showed pictures of runaway slave posters; a former slave whose back was a network of raised, finger-thick welts from repeated whippings. She read from journals and decrees. And she played work songs and read us The Promised Land, Romare Beardon’s short story and accompanying images of his paintings illustrating Harriet Tubman’s life. Hannah was particularly passionate about telling us how Harriet had gone back to the south nineteen times to bring more slaves to freedom. “She could have just escaped and been done, but she kept risking her life to go back, go back to the terrifying place she had run from.”
At the end of the day we had a few minutes left before cleaning up. I felt a need to give them another view of the election through another adult’s eyes. It is one of the privileges of having these charges before us that occasionally we get to say how we feel about the world. And one of the ways they make sense of the world is to hear adults talking about it. I have come to feel that this is part of what makes our school special—we have a community which supports and trusts the teachers enough to know that having those teachers wholly and soulfully express themselves beyond curricular matters is not just acceptable, but good.
Though I am not squeamish about expressing or talking about most things, I try to avoid spewing my political views (though I am sure the kids have a good sense of my position). But I wanted to say things to them that I would have said to any group of kids, no matter what their political persuasion or feelings about the election.
I told them that I remembered how my mother had wanted my father to not vote for Nixon, because her brother had fought in Vietnam, and she was angry that Nixon had said he’d end the war but had expanded it secretly into Cambodia and Laos. I thanked Griffin for asking if I was okay. It told them that him asking that mattered. I told them that I was upset. I told them that that did not make me right, because those who voted or felt differently than me felt they were just as right, and their voice counted as much as mine. I told them that I could not really effect how millions of people voted. And while I might have argued and debated and read and written and studied and hoped prior to the election, there was not a whole lot to be done about it after the fact. Instead of moping, I told them that I had decided I was going to live more determinedly in my sphere of influence.
“Sphere of Influence” is a term we’ve been kicking around in the school all year. What can we do in the space we are in? What powers do we have to act or change or do good? Even on the first day of the school year, Wren said that the flag she had to fly was to learn to live, rather than leave—to face all that life gives or throws at her, and to not run or surrender, but to go straight into it. Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth, as Kind Lear said. Catherine had talked about how we have to live and love completely and be for each other, even in the face our imminent doom. Sam had told us that we had to keep waving to those we love, even when one day they would not be here to wave back—because giving that love is the difference between making the world a good place or leaving it bereft.
I had all these ideas in my mind. My words were simple. We have things to do here. We have ideals and flags for which we stand: Every day we are trying to create the world—which is to say our school, or our homes, or families, or maybe a team or other group to which we belong. We spend our days in a school founded on kindness and love; on asking questions; laughing; listening; understanding the nature of courage, sacrifice, and revelation. We live in a school which believes the more you know about someone or something, the more you come to love them or it; a school and a corps which, as we are reminded by the sign over the classroom doorway, dwells in possibility.
You have a feeling of how you want the world to be, I told them, so you have to be that. You think the world needs kindness or love or tolerance? Then you must be those things. We know how we feel the world should be and we are learning that and we are learning how to love each other and that is what we are going to do. We have school trip to go on and you are going to have twenty-five friends that you are coming to know that you are going to be frolicking with and bumbling around the streets and learning with. And we are going to the Holocaust Museum where we are going to learn about what humans can do to humans and also how beautiful and courageous humans can be, and how a people can survive and keep their souls intact.
We have stories to write which, after you’ve written them and after we have heard them, we will understand how particular and beautifully complex each of us is, and how each of us comprises an amazing universe. We have a play to write which is going to be filled with all the things we are learning, and nothing can stop that either, nobody or no election.
My sphere of influence is with you, I said. I teach you because I like being with people who want to learn how to learn. You see what we are doing, You are learning the difference between a lie and the truth. You are learning that from yourself and each other. And when you can tell the difference between a lie and the truth, you will be armed with the greatest tool you will need to navigate the world. You will get your heart broken, I have had my heart broken, many times before today. When I got my heart broken I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach and everything I believed was true and good was gone or valueless. But I have also learned, and I am learning, that you can’t ever give up on what you believe or value. You have to keep fighting for what your believe is good and right.
And here at school we have the chance to make a little world that is the model of a bigger world. And we have a chance to learn things. We can learn history and we can learn facts. If there is one thing in the world that makes me most angry, it’s people who have a chance to know facts and history but do not respect facts and history and so stay willfully ignorant. You guys know how a feel about ignorance and not treasuring the chance to learn. So take your chances to learn, to know facts, to be close to history. That’s part of your sphere of influence. Focus on the things you can do. You have the power to keep the cockles of your heart warm, and do things that warm the hearts of others. You have to do what Rose said: keep the wheels of your heart turning. That is how you can make something right.
After I talked Wren spoke up. “This morning I felt like the world was broken and it even seemed like someone had died. But right now, after Hannah’s project, I feel like it will be okay. Right now, it is not slavery. We have come a long way, and look at how history has changed. Things will change again and things don’t stay one way forever.”
Creed raised his hand. “Yeah, even since we’ve been born so many things have happened. We have lived though the election of the first black president and the technological inventions like the smart phone and so many other things will happen, and we don’t know what those things will be. Things don’t just stop.”
I think they were saying—no matter how dark you feel, it won’t be dark forever. And, historically speaking, that’s true. But there’s something else they are coming to learn and feel: they are in history, and they are a part of it. This may have been the first historic moment they have shared on a deeply conscious level. And I believe that must be good—as they will inherit something from us and the moment, and that will teach them, and they will have a kind of knowledge and experience that none of us older ones have known in the same way.
As the kids were cleaning up and gathering their things, Wren came up behind my chair in the big room. “I am glad I had this school today.”
* * *
On Thursday morning we arrived in Montreal at the Holocaust museum. Juliette had prepared the class with a project about the Wannsee Conference, the death camps, and Auschwitz. And I had prepared the kids enter the Room of Remembrance in a state of sacred reflection. They responded with reverence and humility. They looked on the engraved names of infamous concentrations camps; they looked up at the six candles which represent the six million. They looked at a wall-sized list of over five-thousand names of towns, villages, and communities which were obliterated by the Nazis. They looked at the marble column of a destroyed synagogue; at an urn with the ashes of victims of the Holocaust; and the eternal flame of remembrance that burns there.
Then they entered the museum, down the steps into history: the pre-war era of the Weimar Republic, the Rise of the Nazis and the mobilization of a nation through propaganda, anti-semitism, and extreme nationalism; the implementation of the Final Solution, the death camps, the liberation, and the aftermath. The kids were imminently respectful—quiet, reflective, engaged, curious, upset, disturbed. They copied quotes down by Elie Wiesel and Martin Buber. “Tal, Tal, look at this. Read this!” Griffin wrote on a scrap of paper: Not to transmit an experience is to betray it. “I’m going to use that in my project,” he said.
When we emerged from the museum the kids picked up their bags and walked into the lobby. A woman who worked at the museum was standing at the snack bar and watched the NBSers come out one by one.
“I have never seen a group of students come out of the exhibit like that,” she said to me, in state of amazement. “They are so composed. How do you do it?”
“I use oppressive measures,” I replied.
She smiled. “No, I mean, they are so steady…so focused.”
I am not sure exactly what she was seeing, but I have a guess. She was perceiving something that I think is true, but I can’t ever really prove, because if I try to, it looks like I’m bragging. She was seeing that our students know when it is time to go deep and, with a visible soul, take in what the world is offering.
We headed upstairs to meet a Holocaust Survivor. In this we were also blessedly lucky: there are still survivors to tell us the story. And due to the number of years since the Holocaust, many of those who still alive were teenagers at the time. Our speaker, Paul Herczog, informed us he was almost 90, born in Hungary, and that he was not going to tell us about the horrors, but about the good things that happened—about how he was saved.
He moved from sitting behind a table in a chair to sitting in the front edge of the table, closer, where we could hear him better, and more intimate. He told us his story—a child of a poor family who had never really had a personal experience with anti-semitism until age 15, when his mother had to sew a yellow star on his coat. He cried then, he said, as his mother kissed him on the forehead. He knew the world had changed.
From there he lived an experience roughly parallel to that of Elie Wiesel: put into a ghetto, moved to a transport facility, loaded onto cattle cars with elderly and children; ferried deep into Poland while the front raged in both the east and west; arrival in Auschwitz; surviving the selection; seeing the chimneys; seeing his mother for the last time; slave-labor; surviving starvation; the death of his father; survival on his own; having his life saved by a German Soldier; surviving typhoid fever; and the sheer luck of it all—his awareness that he survived by chance and by the good actions of others.
“It was the older ones who knew the tricks to survive. They helped the younger ones and that’s how we survived.”
He nearly broke into tears at several moments. He steered clear of details of physical suffering or cruelty. He was also full of joy and warmth. He told us that it was good that the teachers were having young people learn about the holocaust. He wanted us to understand that we should not categorize or judge humans—“a German soldier saved my life” he reminded us. He told us he wanted us to hear the good stories. He had great pride in his own specialized knowledge of smaller camp he worked in and the research he had done on it to preserve the history of it. He told us about his connection between the non-Jewish Germans in the village where his father and comrades died, and about his visits there, and his friendship with those in Germany-—non-Jews also— who have taken care of the graves of the Jews and have kept alive and honored their memory. He told us Santayana’s quote: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. He told us that those Germans he came to know who tended his fathers grave have become some of his greatest friends.He told us, “I am an old man who lived through this, and I have no hate in my heart.”
No hate in my heart. No bitterness. No clinging to anger, no quest for vengeance, no diminishment of spirit. I see that kind of self-mastery as god-like. But, as I told the kids, being that good is not so hard. “Paul Herczog is good. He showed you what righteousness is. You can be good like that.”
Afterwards he was nearly crying with emotion. “You are so good to listen to my story. You have made my day happy,” he said.
We shook his hand. When he signed our copy of I Never Saw Another Butterfly his hand was shaking, the hand-writing crabbed and unsteady. Thank for listen (sic) to my talk. Paul Herczog
Before we went to our rooms in the Hostel we had meeting in the 7th grade boys room, everyone stacked on or crowded under the bunk beds. Ten or so days before we’d read and discussed Buber’s quote: “All real living is meeting.” When we are at our best, that is what we do.
Hannah said, “After his talk today I realized lucky I am to be alive now. I didn’t have to live through the Holocaust.I have this incredible life. I told myself today while we were walking that I was going to try to appreciate everything that makes up my life.”
Merry said: “Well, I always knew the Holocaust happened, We’ve been learning about the Holocaust but it was sort of a book thing, or something to learn about on Wikipedia. Or it is numbers, like 1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz. But when he told us about not ever seeing his mother again, it felt like something completely different.”
“When you get close to history,” I said, “it becomes more more intense and real and fascinating. Which is what you were feeling this week—history was close, you felt it, because you were living through a defined historical moment. But what Creed said is also true. So much will happen. History is a long and continuous thing. We don’t know what will happen. You are seeing what one life in history means. Paul Herczog was using his life for good. Paul Herczog was moved today because he felt that telling you his story is what he must do. He was keeping something alive. His duty is to teach you before he dies so that he will have done what he possibly could to prevent another holocaust. And now you inherit that history.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” said Wren, quoting Martin Luther King.
“Today,” Sasha said, “I felt we were making an I and Thou relationship. Sometimes at school it feels like I and It. But here on the trip I felt like we were getting closer to I and Thou.”
Being in the North Branch School the those few days was to understand what I and Thou is. That is something the whole world could use more of—not just in an election year, but eternally, or “unendingly,” to use Hemingway’s word. And that is what we will keep on making—I and Thou; true living; tracing of that long moral arc with our full hearts.
(an earlier version of this appeared in the North Branch School newsletter “The Current”)